US Coins

'Couch potato' numismatics

A 1938 New Rochelle half dollar? Unfamiliar with it? It takes less than an hour to learn all about it — by pushing some buttons. Well, almost.

Images courtesy of Q. David Bowers.

In the past, it usually took several years for a collector to become proficient at grading, detecting counterfeit and altered coins, and to learn about pricing. Now we have the “instant collector.”

Knowledge about price, grade, and rarity can be gained lickety-split, mostly on the Internet. Certification services take care of grading and authenticity. Numismatic knowledge is free and on a silver platter. Little effort required. All you need to know is your credit card number.

If I were to challenge an intelligent newcomer to spend no more than one hour on the Internet and then tell me all you can about low-mintage 1938 New Rochelle commemorative half dollar, he or she could do this with excellent results and be all set to buy.

Some knowledge, about relative eye appeal of a coin or whether a certified piece is “high end” or “low end” within a grade, may be lacking — but most buyers aren’t concerned with such niceties anyway. Ditto for a 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent, a key-date 1934-S Peace dollar or a Proof 1886 Seated Liberty half dollar. In fact, one hour might be too much time.

This is good and this is bad. The excitement of learning and the thrill of the hunt are largely lost. You can be a numismatic “couch potato” with a screen in front of you. No need to have a reference library. No need to join a coin club. No need to subscribe to any publications. No need to visit a coin show or a coin shop. Might as well stay home.

Recently, a slide show made the rounds on the Internet — showing a group of people sitting in a museum, the walls ringed with beautiful paintings, oblivious to everything except the screens on their cell phones.

Another view showed people sitting in a restaurant doing the same thing. No need to speak to anyone.

With ever-increasing automation and the elimination of humans in many offices, factories, farms and other enterprises, it seems that jobs will become rare to nonexistent for many educated people. Actually, this is already happening.

If robotics, the Internet and virtual everything continues, what will be the specific use of most human beings a few generations hence? Perhaps we will see people living in little compartments with heat, light, water and sanitary facilities to take care of physical necessities, and a comfortable chair and a screen to take care of entertainment, social activities, learning and other pleasures.

There is a numismatic antidote for the above, a way to immerse yourself firsthand in a wonderful experience. Excitement is in the offing! More next week!

Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached at his private email,, or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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